“My first encounter with wine,” laughs wine blogger and public relations expert Tom Wark, “was when I climbed up in my parents’ pantry, attempted to pull down a jug of wine and broke it all over the floor.”
Wark went on to earn a master’s degree in history at San Francisco State. “I realized that despite the fact that I was knowledgeable about history, there wasn’t much call for that in the world,” says Wark. “It looked like I had the skills for marketing and public relations and wine PR sounded good to me.”
Since then Wark has become one of the world’s most respected wine bloggers, known for his efforts to improve consumer rights when it comes to wine distribution and availability.
Direct to Consumer Shipping
Wark has been described as “the first wine muckraker,” for his fierce advocacy against what he sees as an industry bogged down by special interests and laws that protect distributors and middle-men while often preventing wineries from being able to ship directly to consumers.
“In the early nineties I got involved in the direct shipping battle,” says Wark. “It turned out that in every single case it was wholesalers stopping wineries and customers from getting what they wanted. I became impassioned about it. I began writing about it in my blog and I was asked to be executive director for The National Association of Wine Retailers.
This year I started the American Wine Consumer Coalition. There was no organization speaking on behalf of consumers. We’ve got about three-hundred members now and we’re working on passing legislation to help consumers have access to the wines they want. I believe one of the biggest problems in the industry is the extraordinary wine regulations. For example, in many states it’s illegal to sell directly to a restaurant. Wineries have to go through middlemen. In addition you have franchise laws that severely limit opportunities. In general, we haven’t seen a big change in wine laws since the nineteen thirties.”
Wark points out that winery and consumer interests are aligned on this point. “Consumers need access to the wines they want, through grocery stores, retailers, and wineries,” he says. “In every single case a consumer being able to do that is good for a winery. Every time a winery can ship to a consumer it’s good. The more distribution points the better for consumer and winery.”
Wark talks about this issue and much more in his wine blog, Fermentation, started in 2004. He also heads up Wark Communications, a wine industry public relations and marketing firm based in Napa, California.
Wine Industry Trends
According to Wark, two significant changes have occurred in the wine industry over the past decade. First, the means by which consumers access information about wine through social media, blogs, and Web sites, and, second, the explosion in small wineries that now outnumbers larger wineries.
“Those are the two biggest changes I’ve seen in the wine industry,” says Wark. “They both impact PR. I used to spend a lot of time communicating with media, now I spend time communicating with my clients and consumers directly in a way we didn’t do before. It’s a different type of community. The emergence of the wine blogger has also changed things. I look at wine blogging as different from social media; wine bloggers are not publishers, but collectively the number of bloggers has changed the wine media because consumers have far more sources.”
Wark helped start the Wine Bloggers Conference and the American Wine Blog Awards. “I wanted to highlight the best of the wine blogging world,” he says. “It’s helped elevate the reputation of wine blogging.”
Through his blog and marketing work Wark continues to fight for the rights of wineries and consumers. Besides advocating for unfettered access between wineries and consumers, Wark’s PR firm helps wineries with marketing challenges.
The one thing that will never change is the fact that wine is a luxury product; wine is not necessary. Marketers have to give consumers a good reason to spend their money on what is essentially an unnecessary product. This is the challenge. You have to give people a good reason to splurge, talking about romance, lifestyle—their lives will be made better if they drink this bottle. This is why it’s almost impossible to get someone to join a wine club on the Internet. They have to visit the winery, meet the winemaker, then they’ll join because of that experience. Wineries need to talk about wine being fun, easy. But when a winery is selling fifty-dollar bottles, it needs to be more than fun. If you’re going to buy a fifty-dollar bottle of wine you need to justify the purchase. This can be done with a good story, or the fact that it’s hard to find, or speaking directly to consumers’ curiosity or knowledge about wine.”
Wark is in demand industry-wide as a consultant and speaker because of his love for the business and his expertise and clear-headed advice. “My life for twenty-five years has been defined by wine and people in the wine industry,” he says. Engage with Wark on his blog, Fermentation, to experience more of his passions and opinions on the Wine Industry.